How to stop school innovation dead in its tracks

Wisconsin mom Amber Regan nailed it when she pointed out why she couldn’t get her school district on board with a national grant proposal to “rethink” their suburban Milwaukee high school. “They (spend) … a lot of time looking at things and not a lot of time changing things.”

Yep, school districts love to say they are interested in innovation, and they love to complain they can’t afford to invest in the kind of training and technology that makes such innovation possible. But when they are offered a chance to partner with an energized group of parents willing to spend months working on a proposal, they just can’t bring themselves to play in the same sandbox.

Wauwatosa moms Regan and Julia Burns recently learned that their parent group is still in the running for a $50 million competition called XQ: The Super School Project, created to spark a nationwide movement to reimagine the way high schools prepare students for 21st century careers. The inspiration for Wauwatosa’s Pathways High—a hands-on, project-based school that would launch with 100 students—came from their own experience as parents and their viewing last year of a documentary about an acclaimed San Diego charter called High Tech High.

Regan told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that her son had become bored in traditional high school after experiencing a project-based middle school, and implored her to bring something like it to their hometown.

So, I have no idea if the Wauwatosa proposal is any good or has any shot at winning the multi-million dollar competition.

But I do feel a special kinship with committed parents who are so fed up with the status quo of traditional high schools that they are willing to invest precious time re-imagining what’s possible. I also share their frustration with entrenched educational bureaucracies—especially in those solid suburban school districts that have slipped into a comfortable complacency because nobody is raising holy hell about quality.

Consider this reaction from the Wauwatosa superintendent, who said the district won’t partner with the parents on the grant proposal because they have “their own classroom innovations under way and the parents waited too long to loop them in.”

“We have a strategic process in the district to evaluate programs,” said Wauwatosa Superintendent Phil Ertl, noting that a recent revision of its secondary math curriculum took 30 teachers and administrators over a year to develop.

Wow, a year to study a math curriculum. Is protracted navel gazing is something a school superintendent wants to brag about?

So it seems parents like Regan and Burns have a couple of choices here.

They can play nice and hope the district delivers on those planned innovations—then try not to feel too disappointed when their kids endure four stultifying years of seat time and credit accumulation. Just like the high school kids did a generation ago, and the generation before that.

Or they can remake Pathways as a public charter school, a path they are considering but will no doubt put them in the crosshairs of the status-quo defenders in their district and nationwide.

If school districts don’t want to compete with charters, then they have to figure out how to keep their most inspired parents engaged as partners in school improvement. We shouldn’t be forcing them into no-win choices.

Photo courtesy of the Journal Sentinel

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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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